Varejao is Blanche DuBois Defender of the Year
The honor goes to the player who best exemplifies the fundamental characteristics of Ms. DuBois, the tragic figure of Tennessee Williams’ stage and screen masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire”: dependence on “the kindness of strangers” and a preference for “illusion” over “realism.”
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Blanche said it, and Varejao lives it. The strangers he depends on are the NBA’s Rules and Competition Committee (RCC), headed by Executive Vice President Stu Jackson, as well as the referees who enforce the Committee’s rules, interpretations and “points of emphasis.”
As I’ve shown in a series of articles dating back to 2001 (which I recount in this 2006 open letter to Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn), under Jackson’s seven-year stewardship the RCC has shown ever-increasing kindness toward late-arriving or still-sliding help defenders (who will often make a late lateral slide or hop in reaction to evasive action the driver has taken to avoid the charge seeker), whistling innocent offensive players for charging as promiscuously as Blanche slept with young men after her husband’s suicide.
That kindness complements Varejao’s Brazilian b-ball breeding. Despite being long, limber and quick off his feet, the Brazilian was taught as a teen that big-man defense means creating lots of legitimate block/charge (B/C) collisions and collapsing convincingly from incidental contact (more on the latter below). That approach makes sense from a Brazilian national perspective, given that international refs love to call offensive fouls. Yet Varejao has found it even easier to draw them in the NBA. (He led the league with 99 this season despite playing just 24 minutes a game.)
“It’s that [restricted-area] line – if you get into position outside that line, then the official has to give it to you,” he told Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst. “It is harder in FIBA, because they can let it go.''
The other reason it’s so easy is that NBA refs, each of whom is trained to focus his one and only pair of eyes on that line (introduced as a broken line in 1997-98), no longer give proper consideration to when charge seekers “get into position.” Back when common sense reined, a help defender had to be directly in the path before the driver planted for take-off, so the driver would have an opportunity to evade the defender, just as screeners on offense must give a defender sufficient time and space to maneuver around the screen.
Today’s whistle blowers typically don’t take into account where Varejao is when the driver commits; they just want to see that his feet are outside the line and his body is reasonably still at the moment of the collision. That’s a simple standard to meet, one that would allow David Stern to draw 40 charges a season. That standard is largely responsible for an increase in charging calls so dramatic that even recently retired DuBois-style defender Jon Barry and recently fired DuBois-style coach Jeff Van Gundy are appalled and have used their ABC/ESPN platform to lambast the NBA for a rule interpretation straight out of high school or college (which is not to say it’s a good thing for those levels, either).
It’s not surprising that Jackson would preside over this monumental shift. After all, in the 1970s he played for Dick Harter’s University of Oregon Ducks, aka the “Kamikaze Kids,” the most charge-obsessed team in NCAA history. Perhaps Jackson sees it as his noble calling to remake the NBA in the Ducks’ image. Who wants freedom of movement and competitive aerial ballet when you can have a demolition derby and such stars as Amare Stoudemire and Tim Duncan undercut into foul trouble?
The second Blanche characteristic that Varejao and many other hoopsters emulate is illusion.
“I know I fib a good deal,” said the fading southern belle. “After all, a woman's charm is 50% illusion. . . . I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”
In those lines Blanche captures the spirit of the basketball flopper, who “misrepresents things” to the refs.
Many flops are straight-out fibs, presenting the illusion of a shove or push when what actually happened is that the flopper grabbed, brushed against, leaned on or veered into a foe and then flailed his arms or hurled his body in the manner of a Hollywood stuntman.
Other flops fall in a gray area, as a player will embellish the force of real contact initiated by a foe to persuade the ref that the foe’s contact, as Blanche might say, “ought to be a foul.” Varejao himself admits that "Maybe sometimes I exaggerate on the charge.”
The problem that exaggeration poses for NBA refs is that they are required to distinguish what the league terms legal “marginal contact,” which is a frequent occurrence with ten big bodies moving, jostling and bumping on a congested court, from contact that rises to the level of a foul. That would be a tough task in a league without Blanches, where no one is cynically creating false impressions for the refs. It’s impossible with (1) illusionists on every roster and (2) refs implicitly granting every player a presumption of integrity.
As Nunn has said repeatedly on his alternately enlightening and ridiculous NBA TV officiating show, his refs are trained to judge actions, not reputations, personalities or intent. That official mindset allowed such savvy illusionists as Karl Malone, Doug Collins, Reggie Miller and Vlade Divac to bamboozle refs as easily at the end of their careers as at the beginning. It is why their imitators do as well or better in the playoffs as the regular season: Only the “best” refs officiate in the postseason, and one way for a ref to prove his worthiness to Jackson and Nunn is to look with unbiased, virginal eyes every time Varejao or Bell brushes into a screen and pretends he’s been shot. If it looks like a brutal act by the screener, then surely it must be so.
With so many worthy candidates for the DuBois award – Bell, Devin Harris, Derek Fisher, Desmond Mason, Andrew Bogut, Manu Ginobili, to name a few – what puts Varejao over the top? His ability to bag supposedly protected superstars in big games with his specialty: the well-after-the-pass, still-sliding, irrelevant-to-the-play charge. I first saw him do this last postseason, getting Chauncey Billups in the closing minutes of a tight game. Billups led a fastbreak, saw Varejao, dished off and veered leftward. Varejao paid no heed to the ball and the unfolding play; rather, he kept sliding laterally until he eventually wound up in the path of the veering and slowing Billups. This postseason, he’s bagged Jason Kidd (at a key second-half moment of Game 1, wiping out a Josh Boone layup) and Vince Carter.
Back in the decades before Commissioner Stern thought it would be a swell idea to give an important job to Jackson, refs would tend to ignore such contact or call a foul on the sliding, ball-ignoring defender. Not today. The Cav’s curly-haired cutie has cast a spell over NBA refs and their supervisors more mesmerizing than the one Blanche DuBois cast over Stanley’s friend Mitch. Varejao is a worthy recipient of the award that bears her name.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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